The Real Life Family of Lorraine Hansberry

Miami University is presenting Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play Raisin in the Sun, the story of a black family’s experiences in the Washington Park subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood as they attempt to “better” themselves with an insurance payout from the death of the father.

Raisin in the Sun opens Wednesday March 9th and runs through Sunday, March 13th. The production is FREE but tickets are required and may be obtained through the Miami Theatre box office, boxoffice@miamioh.edu, 513-529-3200.

Below is a fine discussion by contributor Kenneth Stern of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s life and legacy:

The Real Life Family of Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was one of those artists who not only wrote what she knew: she captured the pain of life and wrote for the world she was committed to working into becoming. She was honored as an artist, hero, and visionary without having to go through the stage of so many others whom we first call traitors and villains. But, like many who struggle for justice, her legacy has been sweetened up and sanitized. Most of us do not know her real, or whole story. She had double recessive genes for justice. It ran in the family.

Hansberry’s family was rare in that her mother was a college graduate and her father was financially successful and somewhat independent from the white economy as a banker and Chicago real estate investor. Politically aware and active in the NAACP, Carl Hansberry ran for Congress in 1940, only to be crushed by the Chicago Democratic Party machine. The next week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940), struck down restrictive covenants. In 1938 the family had bought a house near the University of Chicago, but were evicted after losing their case to live in the home they purchased in state courts. Lorraine was then eight.

Being ahistorical, most Americans will not know the history, much less understand the significance of the luminaries entertained at the Hansberry household. Though they are hall of fame quality, I feel compelled to define them by our contemporaries WEB DuBois (a combination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X); Duke Ellington (Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis); Langston Hughes (Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka); Joe Louis (Mohammed Ali); Jesse Owens (Michael Jordan, LeBron James); Paul Robeson (more versatile and talented than Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Eddie Murphy) and Walter White, Secretary of the NAACP, 1931 – 1954 (Julian Bond). In Carl Hansberry’s house, very serious discussions took place during our Jim Crow-Lynching period so vividly captured in the 2012 PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name. Lorraine was not even in high school.

Deciding to enroll at the University of Wisconsin (where she was denied a dormitory room on campus) in 1948, Hansberry volunteered on Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign. Think of  Henry Wallace as the Ralph Nader of our time, not even in the Democratic Party and to the left of Bernie Sanders. Wallace was committed to immediate integration and reconciliation with the Soviet Union, radical ideas today.

Lorraine made her way to New York as a 20 year old to take classes from DuBois at the New School for Social Research (now The New School) and work on Robeson’s Freedom magazine. She gave a speech for Robeson at an international peace conference in Uruguay because our government had revoked his passport (he was a Communist; this was the height of McCarthyism.) Hansberry’s passport was revoked when she returned.

A word about DuBois, for context: he was the first African American to earn a PhD at Harvard. His prescient prediction, that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” comes from The Souls of Black Folk (1903). A co-founder of the NAACP, he resigned from it in 1934, though he later rejoined it. Also a Communist, his passport was revoked in the 1950s. In 1959, his passport was restored and he decided to emigrate to Ghana, where he died, in exile, in 1963.

These are the spiritual, if not biological members of Lorraine Hansberry’s family. Sitting on their knees as a child, as an adult she sought them out. From Robeson and DuBois she learned the craft of writing as well as history and a framework for analyzing current events.

This is a bit of the history, the biography, the beliefs, the values, and the fellow travelers of the woman who, at 29, saw her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, performed on Broadway and win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. She was the youngest American, the first woman, and the first African American to win.

From first to last Lorraine Hansberry knew that Black Lives Matter.

 

 

 

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